Israel has permitted Palestinian officials to send the first shipment of 1,000 coronavirus vaccines to the blockaded Gaza Strip, after the Palestinian Authority accused it of holding up vital shipments intended for frontline medical workers.
“This morning, an amount of 1,000 Sputnik vaccines donated by Russia, is being transferred from the Palestinian Authority to the Gaza Strip,” an Israeli security official said. The shipment is expected to arrive later on Wednesday.
Gaza has a population of about 2 million. Health officials there have reported more than 53,000 cases of the coronavirus and 538 deaths.
A previously planned transfer of 2,000 vaccine doses to the coastal enclave, which is geographically disconnected from the West Bank where the Palestinian Authority is headquartered, was blocked on Monday at an Israeli checkpoint.
“These doses were intended for medical staff working in intensive care rooms designated for Covid-19 patients, and for staff working in emergency departments,” the authority’s health minister, Mai al-Kaila, said in a statement.
An Israeli security source said the incident occurred as the national security council, a body that belongs to the Israeli prime minister’s office, had not yet decided whether to allow vaccines into Gaza.
The Guardian contacted the Israeli prime minister’s office for comment but did not receive a response. It is unclear why only 1,000 vaccines were allowed in if the Palestinian Authority had requested double that amount be sent, or if the 1,000 vaccines each contained two doses.
Israel captured the West Bank from Jordanian troops in a 1967 war and its forces have remained there since. It took the Gaza Strip in the same conflict, although its military pulled out in 2005.
In coordination with Egypt, Israel maintains a strict blockade on Gaza, where the Islamist militant group Hamas is in control. Hamas and Fatah, the political group that dominates the Palestinian Authority, are political rivals, but they cooperate on several issues, including healthcare.
Debating on Monday, some Israeli lawmakers said the government should only allow vaccines into Gaza in return for concessions from Hamas, including information about two captive Israelis and the remains of two Israeli soldiers being held by Hamas.
Ahmad Tibi, a parliamentarian from Israel’s Arab minority, said even a discussion about withholding vaccines from people who needed them was shocking. “Your children will be ashamed,” he said, according to the Jerusalem Post.
While Israel is vaccinating all citizens over the age of 16 in one of the world’s most successful rollouts, the country faces criticism for not offering to vaccinate several million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza, where vaccine campaigns have barely started for vulnerable groups.
Following international pressure, Israel agreed this month to transfer 5,000 Moderna vaccine doses to Palestinian medical workers in the West Bank, while the Palestinian Authority intends to source the majority of its doses elsewhere.